Babel No More

I have never thought of myself as particularly good at languages. This despite my reputation in my workplace as someone who can read anything. Indeed, on lection, in the past eight years, I have reviewed books written in French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Portuguese, as well as English. My Latin and Greek were once good enough to read Vergil and Homer, I’ve studied Old and Middle English – and many…

Walking the Walk

In her confused and querulous review of Henry Hitchings’ The Language Wars, Joan Acocella casts opprobrium on “anything goes” linguistic descriptivists. Such academics, she implies, carefully prune their own language of substandard usage, and reap the social benefits of good grammar. But they let their charges – the students and the general public – wallow in a morass of slovenly, uncorrected English. [Hitchings] thinks that the “who”/“whom” distinction may be…

The Rules of Language

A desperately confused book review by Joan Acocella has touched off a flurry of corrective reactions from the online linguistics community, including two excellent posts by Mark Liberman at the blog Language Log. Acocella’s confusion is rooted in an inability to distinguish two meanings of the word “rule.” She goes ballistic over the fact that linguists disparage prescriptive usage rules, but at the same time insist that languages are structured…

Literary Bicentenary: Robert Browning

Robert Browning was born on 7 May 1812; today is his 200th birthday. Like many readers’, my first exposure to Browning was “My Last Duchess.” It is probably the most-orally-interpreted poem ever written, and for good reasons, despite its omnipresent familiarity. Sir, ‘t was all one! My favour at her breast, The dropping of the daylight in the West, The bough of cherries some officious fool Broke in the orchard…